GIFT City: From Dream to Reality

Note: A group of students and researchers toured cities in India and China in January as part of the National Science Foundation Partnership in International Research and Education (PIRE) grant.  Learn more about the Winter School 2016. The students share their observations on this blog.

Blog post by Shai Fogelson, University of Minnesota, written 1/7/2016

Today we got to visit GIFT City located about forty minutes outside the city of Ahmedabad. In the days prior, we learned that GIFT City is being built to be an international financial hub for India. It would be modeled after the financial district in New York City or the Pudong District in Shanghai. I will be honest; I was a bit shocked when we pulled up to GIFT City. Essentially all there was were two giant gleaming skyscrapers surrounded by dust and some greenery doing its best to stay alive. It looked like someone had taken two towers and plopped them down randomly in deserted landscape.

From the top floor of one of the buildings we were able to get a great view of the vast empty space called GIFT City (picture on the left). Amazingly we were then taken to see a model showing what GIFT City is supposed to become. The impressive model (picture on the right) contained many buildings, some even taller than the towers we had been in. There were residential buildings, transit systems, parks and a giant river bordering the entire city. The reason I didn’t remember seeing the large body of water from the tower was because it is currently just a dry river bed.

I left GIFT City being a bit skeptical that they would be able to transform the current landscape into this incredible model of a massive, urban, international financial center. Much of what we saw seemed like wishful thinking.  However, any dream starts from nothing and I was impressed with the planning and dedication that had already gone into making GIFT City a reality. Over the next five years, GIFT City is supposed to grow substantially as they bring in new investors and companies wanting to have a foothold in this financial center. If the City truly becomes what it is intended to, then it is supposed to save India billions of dollars that it is currently losing from not having their own international financial hub. I would love to come back in five years and see the progress that has been made. It would be pretty incredible to have witnessed a dream become a reality.

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PIRE Winter Study Tour of India and China

PIRE Winter Study Tour
December 27, 2015 through January 18, 2016

A group of students and researchers are touring cities in India and China this month as part of a National Science Foundation Partnership in International Research and Education (PIRE) grant that focuses on “Developing Low-Carbon Cities in the USA, China, and India through Inter-Disciplinary Integration Across Engineering, Environmental Sciences, Social Sciences, and Public Health,” led by the University of Minnesota. This PIRE project seeks to  develop a transformative international research, education and outreach program to assist in the development of low-carbon, resource-efficient and healthy cities in the US, China and India.

The purpose of the trip is to address opportunities to inform the smart and sustainable urban infrastructure development in cities in the sectors of energy, transportation/transit, industrial development, and water and waste management systems.  Students will compare and contrast infrastructure and transitions toward low carbon and sustainable cities across India and China.  They will be meeting with city officials, decision makers, urban planners, and industry leaders from all three countries.

Taj Mahal_group

The tour of India began on December 27, 2015 in Delhi, with visits to Rajkot, Ahmedabad, and Agra.  The tour of China will begin in Shanghai on January 14, 2016 and wrap-up on January 18.

U.S. participants of the PIRE tour are from the University of Minnesota (21), Georgia Tech (2), and Yale University (6).  They are being joined by students and researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, China Academy of Sciences, and Tsinghua University.

Learn more about this project on the PIRE website.

Read blogs from the participants:

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Observations of Bus Rapid Transit in India by Kate Gurke

Note: A group of students and researchers toured cities in India and China in January as part of the National Science Foundation Partnership in International Research and Education (PIRE) grant.  Learn more about the Winter School 2016. The students share their observations on this blog.

Observations of India by Kate Gurke

Mural_KateGurke_forblogThe city of Rajkot is covered in miles and miles of citizen painted murals. Every Sunday residents have the opportunity to volunteer to paint a ten by ten foot section of wall, and they are displayed one after another throughout the main roads. One mural in particular resonated with me. The mural says “Repeat after me. I am free” and I can’t help but think about how that statement relates to the presence of a transportation system.

Transportation allows us to go places we could otherwise not due to time and physical abilities. Rajkot has built a bus rapid transit (BRT) system to allow for this movement. The bus rapid transit system starts with two lanes in the center of the road exclusively for buses and is sandwiched between lanes for cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, bikes, and walkers. This provides a space to freely move throughout the city using whatever mode you desire.

The BRT is a product of “if it is built they will come” however it does raise the question, what if “they” are already there? The presence of what has come due to the BRT is seen on the first half of the ride; the second half is much less built up. However, there are people there already. It raises a lot of questions regarding how both can co-exist.

This is a problem that we often see in the United States as well. Specifically in the Twin Cities, the development of the light rail has raised concerns about access and gentrification. There were some neighborhoods along the newest line that were originally going to be bypassed until neighborhood organizations addressed this problem. However, having access to this development can be a huge source of change to neighborhood socioeconomic status and racial demographics.

On one hand, systems like the BRT can be a tremendous improvement to a city. On the other, there are very specific groups who often feel the negative impacts when housing becomes too expensive.

Being able to move around safely is unfortunately not an assumed right. Walkers and bikers may not be able to safely use a road that is congested with traffic, women are advised not to walk at night, and waiting for a bus on an exposed road can be dangerous. The BRT is clearly trying to address some of those issues by providing separate lanes for each mode to safely commute and interact with the city. Rajkot has a number of sites that are worth a view that are now accessible through the BRT.

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First time in India: Observations by Peter Nixon

Note: A group of students and researcher are touring cities in India and China this month as part of a National Science Foundation Partnership in International Research and Education (PIRE) grant that focuses on “Developing Low-Carbon Cities in the USA, China & India through Inter-Disciplinary Integration Across Engineering, Environmental Sciences, Social Sciences & Public Health,” led by the University of Minnesota.  Learn more about their trip.

Observations of India by Peter Nixon

Spotting the patterns
From the Western perspective, Delhi is a complete mess.  There is an immediate lack of clear rhyme or reason when it comes to the traffic, waste management, regulation, and many systems that allocate resources. The second day I was here, I was standing next to a telephone pole observing a plastic lid blowing down a street full of other waste when a man came up with a tiny trash bin and emptied it right next to me.  There was a dumpster down the block 200 feet or so, but right here at the base of the pole was deemed an appropriate place to dump.  Then I looked around and suddenly noticed all the streetlight poles and trees of the street had trash at the base.  The pattern became clear.

Things I am no longer terrified of after living in Delhi for a week

  • Getting lost – Google Maps works well enough within the city to get around.  Also, enough people speak English to never be completely isolated by a language barrier.
  • Breathing in pollution – While the pollution is absolutely the worst anyone in this group has ever experienced (equivalent to smoking ten cigarettes a day), I thought I would suffer more immediate effects.  The chronic effects of pollution are where it gets bad.
  • Traveler’s diarrhea – I thought it would be worse.
  • Vendors – I thought the vendors would be meaner but they are just terse and want to haggle.  Also, shouting is just a part of communicating here.  It’s a loud city.
  • The food – I haven’t had a bad meal since I got here.  Everything is absolutely delicious and cheap.  I love all the fruit and especially the cauliflower recipes.
  • Being constantly overstimulated and completely overwhelmed by everyone and everything all the time – The great hotels we are staying in have helped a lot in this regard by simply providing a quiet and dark place to sleep but overall I think I underestimated my ability to adapt.

Foreign research symbiosis
What appears to be the most prevalent stereotype about Caucasians in India is that we are all smart and rich.  This stereotype, combined with the perceived lack of bias by scientists and by those who have no close ties to India itself, creates an extremely unique opportunity (and moral responsibility?) for foreign researchers.  Scientific studies by western institutions are regarded with an abnormal sense of trust in the accuracy of their conclusions and recommendations.  Multiple organizations who have rolled out the red carpet, offering full cooperation and complete access to data, draw attention to needed topics through scientific studies.  Now, discussions about schmoozing and ethics are for another time, but let it be known that it is incredibly relieving to have such warm offers involving rich data sources and it is nice to share a cup of tea and talk openly and honestly about important issues with experts in the field.

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How can the largest nations in the world develop smart, healthy, and sustainable cities? Workshop in New Delhi, January 11 and 12, 2016

Transforming infrastructure to make cities smarter, healthier, and more sustainable was the topic of a workshop in New Delhi, India on January 11-12, 2016. International experts from policy and academia looked at ways the U.S., China, and India can address issues of air pollution, energy security, and a clean energy future while being economically competitive and technologically innovative. The workshop was inaugurated by Ms. Kathryn Stevens, Deputy Director of USAID.

Indian Workshop_panel

Mr. Tikender Singh Panwar, Mayor of Shimla, India speaking at workshop in Delhi. Panel: Emani Kumar (Executive Director, ICLEI), Hansa Patel (Board Member, ICLEI), Kathryn Stevens (Deputy Director, USAID), Anu Ramaswami (Professor, University of Minnesota), Shi Lei (Professor, Tsinghua University).

Faculty, students, city officials, decision makers, urban planners, and industry leaders from all three countries addressed opportunities for urban infrastructure development in cities in the sectors of energy, transportation/transit, industrial development, and water and waste management systems. Specific topics covered were:

  • Urban planning, design, and policy for next-generation infrastructure systems
  • Infrastructure financing and metrics for evaluation
  • What should smart cities be measuring?
  • Air pollution and health
  • Food-energy-water security
  • Solutions such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), industrial symbiosis, district energy systems, decentralized water and waste management

Policymakers from the United States joined this workshop and reflected on the similarities and differences between issues in the three countries. For example, the issue of waste management had high priority everywhere. While Indian cities are trying to reduce open waste burning, U.S. cities like Minneapolis are working to increase recycling yield, as Stephanie Zawistowski (Sustainability Policy Aide for Mayor Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis) explained.

Other examples of U.S. policy and investments towards sustainable infrastructure were given by Anne Hunt (Sustainability Policy Advisor for Mayor Chris Coleman, St. Paul, MN), Melissa Hortman (member of the Minnesota House of Representatives), and Ken Smith (President and CEO of District Energy St. Paul).

For a group of 22 students from all three countries, the workshop formed the conclusion of their visit to India as part of the PIRE Winter School, and offered a chance to reflect on their experiences. “The workshop gave us a wonderful chance to communicate with distinguished professors and policymakers from three countries”, says Yuanchao Hu, PhD student from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “It motivated me to come up with research questions, and informed me of where we are now and how far we still need to go to build healthy, sustainable, and livable cities across countries.”

The workshop was hosted by ICLEI-South Asia and the University of Minnesota, in collaboration with Yale University, Georgia Tech, and IIT Kanpur, with funding from the National Science Foundation PIRE project and ICLEI-USA’s USAID-PEER award.

Workshop Sponsors

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First Stop Delhi: Observations from student Aaron Hanson

Blog post by Aaron Hanson, University of Minnesota

aaron1 aaron2

The traffic! Riding in Delhi traffic is the most eye opening wild experience. I see now why so many researchers focus on transportation issues. The calm amongst the chaos is to me a beautiful example of coexistence. Our fearless leader Dr. Anu Ramaswami can be seen here on the left and some of the following pictures.

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The first week of this trip is to study urban infrastructure and compare centralized and decentralized systems to determine what makes for a more sustainable city.


In a city of 17 million people a water treatment plant (WTP) that serves approximately 18% is a civil engineering marvel. The Degremont plant in Delhi has the capacity to treat 635 million gallons of water per day. It is the largest in India, and it is impressive to say the least.

Pictures from centralized WTP

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I have been fortunate to visit with township developers on this trip that are implementing building or block scale electricity generation, and sewage treatment plants (STP). At first glance these seem to have an advantage over the centralized systems that are frequently under or oversized. The first of these that we visited has diesel generator (DG) sets operating for electricity in each block of buildings, and a waste water treatment plant located below it in the lower of two basement levels that provides the cooling water for the generators before being used as toilet flush water and to water the landscaping.

Pictures from township 1 DG sets

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Pictures from township 1 STP

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The Guar City township site we visited next has a zero waste initiative where they are composting organic trash for fertilizer. This fertilizer is used in landscaping and offered to the residents at no cost for house plant soil. Much like the first site we visited, they have integrated an onsite sewage treatment plant for each block of residential buildings and the treated water here is also used for landscaping and toilet flush water. In this township they have established a modular STP system that can be multiplied as the occupancy increases. The Guar City buildings are being built on the Indian Green Building Council gold level platform. This will include rooftop solar power generation as well as solar water heating and many other energy efficiency features.

Pictures from Guar City STP

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Follow up questions for Guar City

-What are they doing with the non-organic trash?

-Will there be any electric storage capacity for solar generation?

More features like these can be found at the township designed by the BESTECH compay.

Pictures from BESTECH designed township

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While these systems look very promising for the township developments there is still a need for the centralized STP systems in the single family housing areas. As of now only a percentage of existing homes’ sewage discharge is being treated. For the homes without connection to a STP the untreated sewage is being sent down the Yamuna River. To say it plainly; the situation stinks!

Pictures from centralized STP

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This combined with the raw water extraction for the WTP being done upstream of Delhi is killing this river. Some insight of local cultures’ reverence for rivers seems to contradict the mal treatment of the Yamuna. This history of cultural river reverence could be a fulcrum for change if the problem is framed correctly.

Pictures from Yamuna River

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Today we met with the Indian Green Building Council after which we toured one of the most energy efficient and highest indoor air quality buildings in the world. This is accomplished with a method of cycling the ventilation through the attic greenhouse that is filled with specially selected plants that help scrub carbon and volatile organic compounds out of the air as it passes through. Special hydroponic pots help to double the effect by cycling the air through the roots of the plants as well.

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Black buggers and coughing… reminds me of the stories people would tell me when they visited Los Angeles back in the 90’s. At breakfast this morning I noticed a number of people had runny noses and where coughing a bit. These mild symptoms are telltale signs of the larger heath issues stemming from the air quality problems in Delhi.

Happy New Years! Today was a day to finally catch up on some rest and relaxation. Mauricio and I treated ourselves to some good ole fashion Americanized Asian food at Benihana for lunch. The real treat though was dinner at Oh! Calcutta; a recommended Indian fine dining experience with Mauricio, Halston, Jill, Kate, Katja, and Amrish, from left to right respectively.


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Vehicular exhaust and non-exhaust emissions in Delhi: Study featured in Times of India

A joint study by dr. Ajay Nagpure (University of Minnesota), B. R. Gurjar, Vivek Kumar (IIT-Roorkee), and Prashant Kumar (University of Surrey) on vehicular exhaust and non-exhaust emissions in Delhi is highlighted by  The Times of India and Economic Times of India.

“Estimation of exhaust and non-exhaust gaseous, particulate matter and air toxics emissions from on-road vehicles in Delhi.” Atmospheric Environment(2015).

The study shows how different types of vehicles are responsible for various pollutants, and distinguishes the contribution of different technologies and policies for reducing vehicles emissions in Delhi . The study indicate that although the emissions norms and technology intervention in transport sector is having significant impact on reducing the pollution but increasing vehicle population with economic growth is the major challenge for controlling the emissions from transport sector.

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